From Auschwitz to My Lai to Abu Ghraib, the courageous few who stand up to moral transgression can be more perplexing than the brutalizers.
For many psychologists, moral courage is as hard to define as physical bravery. Social science has scrutinized the face of evil but has tended to skip virtue.
Yet the righteous abound in history: Christians who rescued Jews from the Nazis, pilot Hugh Thompson who swept down to stop fellow Americans from massacring My Lai villagers in Vietnam.
And at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, at least a handful of American soldiers resisted or exposed the abuse of prisoners chronicled in photographs, according to military and news accounts.
Seven soldiers are facing military charges related to the abuse and humiliation of prisoners captured by the now-infamous photographs at the prison.
Some experts in human behavior have found common threads among those who stand up to collective wrongdoing. Like the brutalizers, objectors take their cues from others.
They are guided by values instilled through close and trusting social relationships in their youth. They have strong bonds with personal confidants or outsiders beyond the confines of the group that spawned the abusers. They are often encouraged by the chance presence of an ally within that group. It helps if their superiors make sure there are channels to report wrongs and people are trained to use them.
“The mutual support provided by men for each other is the strong bulwark we have against the excesses of authority,” wrote the late psychologist Stanley Milgram.
In a classic 1960s experiment at Yale University, he found that most ordinary people, if encouraged by an authoritative-seeming scientist, were willing to administer ostensibly dangerous electric shocks to people. Milgram noticed that clergymen and the better educated were more likely to resist.
Social psychologists believe that strong attachments to parents, other relatives, teachers or pastors help form values that act as a moral compass in times of confusion.
As a result, some children and teenagers eventually come to “know right from wrong based on something bigger than themselves,” says James Campbell Quick, a retired Air Force Reserve colonel who teaches organizational behavior at the University of Texas at Arlington. Such morality can grow out of religion or an informal set of positive values.
Sociologist Rona Fields, at George Washington University, who wrote “Martyrdom: The Psychology, Theology, Politics of Self-sacrifice,” believes that righteous people have more strongly developed frontal lobes in the brain. That region controls common sense and moral judgment.
They can thank their upbringing, she says, which often includes training in science, music, or art – disciplines that stimulate that part of the brain. “They’re able to question and challenge, and they’re stimulated to think about things by the adults and the environment around them,” she said.
Psychologist Ellin Bloch, of Alliant International University in Los Angeles, has studied wartime trauma and suspects that moral objectors act more out of fear than fearlessness.
“They would have this terrible anxiety, because if they participated, they literally wouldn’t be able to sleep at night, to look at themselves the next day in the mirror, be able to face their parents, their spouses, their children,” she said.
Some would simply call it conscience, she acknowledged.
Even when born of righteousness, moral courage can be stymied by enormous pressures within the military to conform and obey orders in wartime, psychologists say. Ombudsmen and hot lines can encourage whistle blowers.
“Organizations have to make it clear that blind loyalty … is not the supreme ideal, that critical judgment is important,” says Holocaust survivor Thomas Blass, a social psychologist at the University of Maryland.
Psychologist Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University hopes to help establish an award from psychologists to the soldiers who resisted abusing prisoners in Iraq.
Zimbardo is known for a 1971 experiment that put college students as guards in a mock prison. Within days, they were mistreating inmates — other college students. The abuse included forcing them to simulate sex acts, much like the guards at Abu Ghraib in Iraq apparently did.
However, Bloch, the Los Angeles researcher, is skeptical about prospects for rousing soldiers to follow such examples en masse. She said war is ready-make for atrocities. It has bred them on all sides for thousands of years.
“You have to dehumanize people in order to kill them,” she said.
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